Karol Wojtyla did not invent Personalism. Rather, Personalism is a movement in modern philosophy that he discovers, embraces, and tries to integrate into traditional Catholic thought. Wojtyla thinks that Personalism can help to explain human dignity and support Catholic moral doctrine. Adopting modern philosophy, however, is always a risky business. I am worried that some aspects of Karol Wojtyla’s Personalism could lead to bad consequences.

At the heart of Wojtyla’s Personalism is a modern understanding of subjectivity. Modern philosophy began, arguably, with what’s called “the subjective turn.” Descartes and those who followed him thought that the human mind does not exist in the same objective, external domain as the rest of the world. Instead, the mind exists in an inner subjective realm, which is distinct from the external world of objects. Wojtyla seems to follow Descartes here. He takes the subjective turn. Wojtyla distinguishes the subjective world of experience from the objective world of things. And he says the subjective world is cordoned off. It cannot be observed from the outside. 

At this point we should consult the history books. What happened after Descartes’ subjective turn? Well, suddenly philosophers began to doubt whether we could have knowledge of the external world. If there is a gap between the subjective realm of experience and the external world, then how can we be sure that our experience tells us anything reliable about the external world? Maybe our experience doesn’t accurately reflect the world. Or maybe we are just trapped in the subjective world–we can’t access anything outside our own minds. This is the danger of subjectivism that Professor Crosby talked about. 

Now, Karol Wojtyla clearly rejects subjectivism. He wants to preserve the external world and our knowledge of it. But, to quote a renowned philosopher, “you can’t always get what you want.” Descartes also wanted to keep the external world and our knowledge of it. And he formulated arguments to do this. But his arguments were weak. Some of the most brilliant philosophers that came after Descartes (such as Immanuel Kant) showed, with better arguments, that the subjective turn eliminates any knowledge of external things as they are in themselves. 

Many contemporary Thomists, such as John Haldane, Anthony Kenny, and John O’Callaghan, argue that, in order to solve Descartes’ problem, we need to reject Descartes’ initial assumptions about the mind. The mind and its experiences do not exist in some inner subjective realm. Rather, the mind and its experiences are wholly external. They are a part of the same objective, external world as everything else. Thus, there is no gap between subjective experience and the world. According to the Thomists, this eliminates the source of doubt.

Unfortunately, Wojtyla cannot avail himself of this Thomist solution. He denies that the human mind and its experiences are wholly external. What then is Wojtyla’s alternative solution? He needs one. How can he prevent his subjective turn from leading us exactly where Descartes’ did? How can he prevent us from ending up with Immanuel Kant or with full-blown external world skepticism?  

Another aspect of Wojtya’s Personalism that may lead to problems is the distinction between person and human being. A human being is an individual with a human nature. Human nature is a part of external, objective reality. Human nature is also shared. Every human being has the same nature as everybody else. Finally, human nature gives every human being a certain amount of dignity. A person, for Wojtyla, is a subject of lived experience. Personhood, unlike human nature, is part of the internal subjective world. Also, unlike human nature, personhood is not shared. Every person has unique personhood, given by his entirely unique interiority and self-reflective experience. This unique personhood raises the person’s dignity to an even higher level than that of a mere human being. 

So, what is the problem? There are a few. Here’s one. We don’t just want people all to have high levels of dignity. We want everyone to have an equal level of dignity (in order to insure such things as equality under the law). This is why, traditionally, we tie dignity to human nature. Everyone shares the same human nature, so everyone has the same level of dignity. But, if dignity comes from personhood, and personhood is different for everybody, then what’s to prevent everybody from having different levels of dignity? Compare Socrates to Mike Tyson. Personhood, for Wojtyla, involves subjectivity, lived experience, and a reflective sense of oneself. Surely, Socrates has a deeper and richer subjectivity. His reflective sense of himself is more complete than Mike Tyson’s. So why not conclude that Socrates’ personhood is superior to Mike Tyson’s? And then why not conclude that the two have different levels of human dignity, and should be treated unequally? If dignity comes from something other than human nature, we risk losing any guarantee of equality.

Another problem with Wojtyla’s distinction between personhood and human nature is that it plays into the hands of contemporary Personism. Personism is a very influential view in ethics that, like Wojtyla’s Personalism, distinguishes between human beings and persons, ties personhood to subjective self-awareness, and ties human dignity to personhood. According the Personists, many human beings are not persons. Unborn children, for example, are human beings but not persons because they lack self-awareness. Personists, such as Peter Singer, use Personism to justify abortion and even infanticide. Singer says that persons have great value and should be protected, but mere human beings have less value. So killing non-self-aware infants (who aren’t persons) is not such a big deal.     

Now, Wojtyla would be appalled by Singer’s conclusion. He does not want killing a baby to be less serious than killing a conscious adult. Yet, how can Wojtyla get a different conclusion from Singer if he starts with so many of the same premises? Once Wojtyla has distinguished between personhood and human nature, and once he has made personhood dependent upon subjective experience, how can he avoid the conclusion that some human beings aren’t persons? How can Wojtyla hold that an infant in the womb at 3 weeks of development is a person, if being a person involves subjective experience? Wojtyla, it seems, cannot fall back on potentiality here. He can’t say that the baby is a person simply because it has the potential to develop inner subjectivity. Why? Because such a potential would be an objective fact about the baby, rather than a subjective fact about the baby’s experience. A potency to develop self-consciousness would not be an encounter of oneself from within oneself for the baby. It would be a part of the baby’s nature, part of the cosmological image. And so it wouldn’t rise to the level of personhood, which for Wojtyla requires interiority. 

A final question I have is this: if the person is revealed internally, by encounter with oneself from within oneself, but nature is revealed externally from a third-person perspective, then what happens when the internal doesn’t match the external? Consider the transgender movement. Some people have internal sense of themselves as female, even though on the level of external nature they are male. Why can’t transgender advocates say that since personhood is revealed by one’s internal sense of self, and since personhood is a greater source of dignity than mere external nature, we should embrace the internal sense of being female? Subjectively speaking–on the level of personhood–John is female, even though objectively speaking–on the level of biological nature–John is male. This is more or less what many transgender advocates say. So how can Karol Wojtyla keep his Personalism from supporting transgenderism? 

If we stick with traditional Thomism, we can avoid all of the above problems. As Thomists, we can say that the mind is external like everything else. This would allow us to avoid external world skepticism. Next, we can say that to be a human person is just to be an individual with a human nature. Nothing more. There is no special something over and above human nature. The dignity of the person comes from this human nature. Every person has the same dignity because he has the same nature as everyone else. Babies in the womb are persons with full human dignity because they have the same nature as everyone else. And finally an individual with a male body is always a man because his personhood is determined by his nature (which includes his externally manifest sex), rather than by his subjectivity. Why then should Catholic philosophers follow Wojtyla down the path of modern subjectivity rather than just stick with traditional Thomism? Contemporary Personalists owe us an answer.